Munster ready for road again

Munster fly out of the province today on their latest European adventure as the players prepare for tomorrow’s Champions Cup Pool 1 opener against Sale Sharks in England’s north-west.

Munster ready for road again

It is a sensible decision to fly out at least 24 hours before kick-off, the Munster management giving the squad every chance to settle in and get comfortable with their surroundings and fix any last-minute hitches in situ with enough time still left to ensure they countdown to the 1pm first whistle at AJ Bell Stadium with the minimum of disruption.

Nothing is left to chance on these trips, and when you have someone in charge of them with the experience of team manager Niall O’Donovan, there is very little that can catch Munster unawares.

O’Donovan has been travelling with Munster and Ireland since the game turned professional in 1995/96, has planned international tours to Japan and Argentina and could probably recite the flight timetables out of Cork and Shannon to every destination on the European rugby map if he had to.

It is just another part of the often mundane but always logisitically challenging business of getting 25 players and a background team of 15 staff to the game on time.

Which means that by the time the players amble through passport control, a travel operation months in the planning by O’Donovan and team services manager Jennifer Murphy is in full swing.

Even while they were waking up this morning in their own beds ready for their flights from Cork and Limerick to Manchester, kit manager Jack Kiely was already in the city, having caught the ferry over the previous night in a Munster team equipment van packed with all the matchday essentials.

“The planning starts the minute we get a date for the game,” O’Donovan said. “Once we get a date, we look for flights and accommodation, distance of hotels from grounds, which ones are used to catering for a rugby team, that has a big play in it.

“We haven’t been in Manchester for a while, haven’t played Sale in this stadium on this pitch before. So it’s a case of finding hotels that suit us, that will be able to take us and have the right meeting rooms and video rooms, bedrooms that are big enough with the right bed sizes. We have to plan down to the minute detail.”

Most of the detail comes in the week of the away game when the work on flights and hotels is long done.

“On a weekend like this we’d travel with the 23 players and you’d bring two extra, a forward and a back, just in case something happens. So you’re talking 25 players in 12 twin rooms with two double beds if possible, or at least two very large singles plus a single room.

“When it comes to meeting rooms we need a place for masseurs, physios, video analysis, a team meeting room and a leisure room where guys can come in and sit down, have a cup of tea and snack, watch television. And swimming pools are good to have, especially for when guys get off a long flight.

“Assistant coach Ian Costello went over two weeks ago to take in a Sale game (for scouting) and he checked out the hotel while he was there.”

Professional rugby teams, like armies, march on their stomachs and so when it comes to food on away trips, a lot of planning and liaising takes place with the hotel chefs, particularly for a 1pm kick-off, which requires players to eat their breakfast at 7.15am and a carbohydrate-filled pre-match dinner at 9.30am.

“These guys will eat every two hours and so the team dietician, Catherine Norton, has to send over instructions for breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks because we have to make people understand we’re not dealing with something different. Other sports, like soccer, wouldn’t put away the amount these fellas do.

“Preparation for the game starts four hours before kick-off, with guys working through lineouts and various bits and pieces before their pre-match meal. They’ll settle again before coming back for pre-match meetings then bus in to the ground an hour and a half before kick-off. It’s a ritual we all get into.”

It may be second nature at this stage for O’Donovan but that doesn’t mean he is unprepared for a plethora of potential travel disasters.

“We’ve had a fair few lost passports, the most recent being Robin Copeland’s (last month) and even more that just forgot them. You can only keep reminding them.

“But various things can happen. Passports are one thing and then you have fellas arriving sick at the airport and you have to get other fellas in at the last minute. Things change on a regular basis and you have to be ready for any eventuality. And everything has happened. When you’re dealing with 25 players and four coaches, video analysts, doctor, physiotherapists, a masseuse, bag man, dietician, two strength and conditioning people, you’d have anything up to 40 people travelling with a lot of add-ons and excess baggage and when you’ve all that anything can happen. You just have to be ready for it. It’s like herding sheep at times, you just send the players here, send them there, it’s what happens when you all travel together.

“We’ve had so many breakdowns in planes as well but these are all part of it and guys get on with it and accept it.

“We’ve been left waiting five hours, six hours in the airport, we’ve been in the air flying to Glasgow and been told we’re landing in Dublin instead due to technical problems, so these things happen when we fly 16 times a season.

“And then I was involved with the A team three years ago and we were on the way to play Bristol in the lead up to Christmas and it was called off on the morning of the game but the fog was in and the airport was closed and we had to fly out of Heathrow, and then we were told Heathrow was closed. So we made an executive decision to take the next left off the motorway and head down to Fishguard and get on a boat.”

Planes, boats and buses, whatever it takes to get Munster to the game. And home again.

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